Wally the corpse flower


Attention plant nerds, there is a rare event happening in Bloomington, Indiana. A corpse flower, or Amorphophallus titanum (titan arum), is getting ready to bloom in the Jordan Hall Greenhouse on the campus of Indiana University. This will be the first time this particular plant, affectionately nicknamed “Wally,” has ever bloomed, making it an especially cool occurrence. I took a stroll through the greenhouse today to witness this monster flower emerging, which is more than five feet tall even though it hasn’t opened yet. Corpse flowers can grow more than five inches per day and there is a live stream video where you can literally watch Wally grow if you sit still long enough at http://www.indiana.edu/~video/stream/liveflash.html?filename=corpse_flower.

It’s anyone’s guess as to when Wally will fully open, but it seems like it will be soon since the spathe (ruffly sheath) is starting to loosen around the giant spadix (tall central growth). The plant was gifted to the greenhouse nine years ago and until now has only gone through vegetative cycles where it grows a single large leaf divided into leaflets that looks more like a small tree for around a year and then dies back and rests for a few months. After the rest period, the plant will either push out a new leaf or, when it has matured somewhere between 8 and 20 years, it will bloom for the first time. After the first bloom, the corpse flower should bloom every two or three years if conditions are right.

The titan arum is commonly called corpse flower because it emits a strong offensive odor when open. This smelly reproductive technique is used by a handful of plants that are pollinated only by carnivorous insects, like carrion flies and beetles, which typically eat dead animals and couldn’t care less about flowers, so the corpse flower tricks these insects to come investigate the flowers by smelling and looking somewhat like rotting meat. The large spadix and spathe of the corpse flower are the stars of the show, but aren’t technically the flower, the actual flowers are small and numerous and located at the base of the spadix. The smell and the deep burgundy color of the inner spathe mimic rotten meat, which lures insects down to the flowers to investigate. They soon realize there is nothing to eat, but are now covered in the flower’s pollen which they will ideally carry on to another flower.

The flower is only open for a day, two at most, before it starts to wilt, so timing is everything with the corpse flower. The only place in the world that this plant grows wild is in Sumatra, so unless you’re planning a trip there soon, take advantage of the opportunity to see this crazy flower while it lasts. The Jordan Hall Greenhouse is open to visitors every day of the week (7:30-3:45 weekdays, 9-3 weekends) and is on the corner of 3rd St. and Hawthorne. I just checked the live stream again, only three hours have passed since I last looked, and I swear it’s grown an inch! I am definitely going to keep an eye on Wally and go back to see and smell him in his full glory.

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